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Sunday, September 1, 2019
Scripture: Colossians 3:12-17 & Romans 14:13-23
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
The Bible is filled with stories of broken relationships. Cain murders Abel all of four chapters into Gensis. Jacob and Esau have a decades’ long falling out. Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery. Exodus is filled with stories of the people grumbling against Moses’ leadership. King Saul goes from being soothed by the sounds of David’s harp-playing to flying into a murderous rage at David because of God’s will to have David be the king. Shifting into the New Testament, we have several stories of people appealing to Jesus to settle disputes. One person wants him to play judge in a squabble over an estate. The Pharisees and Sadducees both make attempts to get Jesus to join their side in their religious debates.
And then there’s the early church. As I was thinking about what passages speak to today’s question – “I wonder what the best approach is with someone who has been deeply hurt by behaviors of the organized church and has no interest in attending church again” – I thought, “Well, surely there are a couple of passages in the early church that could connect with this.” So, I started making my way through the Book of Acts and beyond, and I discovered it’s harder to find stories of harmony than it is to find stories of the church working through its own brokenness. There are fights over whether the Gentiles are included in this Jesus movement. If they are, they fight over how much of the old ways must be preserved and adopted by the converts – everything from circumcision to eating clean foods. Paul has several bitter departures with co-workers – including Barnabas and Mark. The subtext of both letters to the Corinthians is basically, “Why do you keep getting this wrong?” We’ve spoken a bit about Galatians on the past two Sundays, and that’s one of the rawest letters of Paul because he is so strongly opposed to what others have been teaching them. We’ll get to this one later in the fall, but Paul’s good relationship with the Philippians still leads him to encourage two women – Euodia and Syntyche – to find a way to make peace between themselves. There’s even the unsettling issue of a runaway slave named Onesimus, who has fled the household of Philemon. Paul writes to Philemon both to mend fences and to encourage him to free Onesimus as a brother in Christ. These are stories the came to my mind in all of a few minutes while nursing a cup of coffee at Aldea this week. I’m sure there are plenty more.
The history of the church over the past 2000 years has been that same story of brokenness. What started as a dynamic movement in Jerusalem shortly after the resurrection of Jesus, quickly broke down into camps of theological and cultural differences. Just take one look at the various splits in official church history. So much for taking seriously Paul’s words in Ephesians 4, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.” Or check out this messy diagram of the splits and reunions just within our own Presbyterian lineage here in the U.S. We split over biblical inerrancy. We split over slavery. We split over women’s leadership. We have split over gay marriage and pastoral leadership. Even though we’ve had our reunions (most recently in 1983), our splits and mending have us looking more like Frankenstein than the bride of Christ.
The Bible is filled with stories of brokenness, of failed relationships, and of people who have been hurt by religion. Church history has continued in that vein. Yet, it’s been my experience that many believe that they can only be a part of this body that we call “the church” if they have already put themselves together. When we experience personal brokenness, we have a tendency to retract from the community. When we have a falling out with someone in the pews with us, we just go away rather than doing the hard work of seeking reconciliation. When life gets hard, so many of us shy away from the community.
And I get it. No one likes being seen when they’re at their lowest. No one really likes to look someone in the eye who has hurt them, working up the courage to offer forgiveness and reconciliation. It goes against our human instincts, yet I believe that hard work of reconciliation and peacemaking is one of the ways that churches can have a profound impact not only on individual lives but also on our community and nation.
Just look at what Paul writes to the churches in the region around Colossae, which would have included Philemon and Onesimus. His words build like a perfect symphony, one word after the next building the anticipation for the glorious climax. You are God’s chosen. You are holy and beloved. So, daily start putting on those garments that will equip you to live in God’s way in the world – compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. And then to show he knows that life and relationships aren’t always perfect, he urges us bear with each other. Forgive each other. Why? Because everyone of us is already a recipient of grace. And over all this good stuff, add on love because that’s what holds this all together. Just when we suspect that Paul should be done, he keeps going! The peace of Christ, that same peace he left with his disciples as he faced his arrest and crucifixion, that peace should rule over your hearts. And, oh yeah, be thankful because gratitude is one of the clearest signs that you have found the freedom of Christ in your life.
What is our great unifier? The word of Christ. It should dwell in each of us with all its richness and beauty. It should be something we not only hear on Sundays but also something we treasure in our hearts and lives every day because it transforms us. What beautiful and practical words Paul offers to us through his letter to the Colossians. This is what Christian community can look like. This is what it should look like – broken people seeking healing together, hungry people showing each other where the Bread of Life is found.
It’s interesting to me. Paul did not start the churches around Colossae. He knew some of them because they visited him in prison in Ephesus, but there is no record of Paul making it there to see what was going on. Similarly, Paul wrote to the churches in Rome to encourage their unity. There were several churches in Rome, quite likely divided up among ethnic and theological lines. When he wrote them, he had never met them. He didn’t start those churches, and it wouldn’t be until the end of his life that he may have had the chance to meet them. Yet, he writes with conviction about how God wants them to live peaceably with each other. Paul is a man of deep conviction, and his conviction leads him to urge mutual forbearance. It’s like what a parent does to mediate between two kids who are fighting. “He hit me!” “But he kept annoying me by making noises.” And what does the parent do? They mediate. “It’s not OK to hit each other, and you really should not annoy your sibling. You’re both wrong! Get along!” Or as Paul urges, “Let us then pursue what makes for peace and mutual upbuilding” (Rom. 14:19). As I said last week, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1), yet that does not mean we should use our freedom to run over another. Paul doesn’t believe that following the rules about eating foods that are ritually clean matters anymore, but if eating whatever we feel like because we’re free hurts another, then we shouldn’t do it. “If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love,” he writes (Rom. 14:15). This Christian community thing is beautiful, and it is also messy. Life is beautiful, and it is also messy.
So, to the question about what to do when someone is hurt by the church and now wants nothing to do with it. How do we approach someone like that who is in our lives? I think it begins with how Paul describes Christians in Colossians 3. We clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. We become patient and eager listeners – quick to listen and slow to speak. We listen to grievances with patience and humility. We love them right where they are. Look, we all know that humans aren’t perfect, and since the church is made up of broken people, we know that the church at times hurts people, quite often unintentionally. It’s OK to own that and to grieve that brokenness. I’d also encourage you to keep the door open to those who have been hurt by the church. I know we all believe that this place offers acceptance to any who would come, but that doesn’t mean it is easy to walk into this sanctuary with the baggage we carry. We must do all we can to carry the load with our brothers and sisters, knowing that the peace that passes all understanding only comes through giving our baggage and brokenness over to Jesus.
In Jesus’ parable about the Prodigal Son, we see the courage it takes to try to return home to the loving arms of God. The son has broken relationship with his father. He’s squandered everything. At his lowest point he finally decides to return home, expecting no welcome and hoping only for a place at the servants’ table. Yet, the father interrupts the son’s speech about how terrible he feels about what he’s done. He embraces him. He welcomes him home. That’s the way God rejoices over people who seek wholeness and restoration from their own brokenness. That’s the kind of joy and love people should find mirrored in the church.
In the end this is a question less about human interactions (as broken as they can be) and more about our trust in God’s faithful love and goodness. Today we have the joy of celebrating communion together. This is God’s table, representative of the great feast we will share together some day when all the broken things are made whole. When Paul wrote to the tragically broken Corinthian community, he reminded them, “Is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ” (1 Cor. 10:16)? May all who are broken find wholeness at this table and in this church, the Body of Christ.